"Sunday, Bloody Sunday…"

January 26, 2011

Well, hello.  It’s been a while; how’ve y’all been?  Me?  Oh, fine, just fine.  Why yes, I have been working a lot…

After coming to the realization (duh!) that I make my own schedule, and that I really need to take two entire days off each week, my work routine has settled down a bit.  I still have split days off as the restaurant is closed on Mondays, and the other manager has a commitment that makes Tuesdays off impossible for me; but I’ve kind of gotten used to it.  It’s almost like a 3-day weekend every week, if you don’t count the 10 hours of work right smack in the middle of it.  Such a rude interruption…

Really, though, the only aspect of my job that I even mildly dislike is the schedule;  and that only because it involves working Sundays.  No, not the dreaded brunch as I would have opened an artery long ago if Sunday Brunch were required.  Just like Jeff Golblum’s line in Jurassic Park, that “life finds a way…”, brunch also finds a way, every week, to suck.  We are open for brunch and dinner on Sundays, the only day we open the doors during daylight hours; but my “keyholder” manager is there on Sunday mornings, and God bless her for it.   That, and HBO On Demand are the only things that make working on Sundays tolerable, barely.   I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the bosses at my two previous jobs for giving me almost four years of Sunday-free work schedules.  As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”

Sundays, and the people who dine out on the 7th Day, are a different breed of cat altogether.  You see people out to dinner on Sunday nights that you never, ever see any other night of the week.  They say in the Bible that God rested on the 7th day, and the leper colony we get in each Sunday is your proof.  My theory is that all the people who dine on Sunday nights crawled out of the primordial ooze when God took His one day off because He, too, just couldn’t deal.  God was at home, in His sweats and wife-beater with His feet up and Sports Center on the tube when these people snuck their way into the evolutionary cycle.

And just to add salt to the gaping wound of working Sunday nights, and simultaneously drive a dagger into the heart of our check average, we offer a three-course “supper” for $20.  This is just to make sure that we not only get the weirdos, but also the cheap weirdos.  We have people who ask if they can split the $20 meal.  Really?  Look, if you don’t have enough money to eat out, just stay home…

Last Sunday night was a classic.  Knowing the check average is always down, and often cover counts as well, I was sympathetic to my staff’s need to make a little coin even on Sundays; so I went with a lean crew.  Three waiters, one bartender, one food runner, one hostess and I did over 120 people; and all of them came in at once.  The parties of 8 and 9 started coming in around 7:15, so we were all sufficiently lulled into complacency by then.  And they kept coming through the door, like extras from The Walking Dead.  We have an alarm system that makes a “beep-beep” in the back kitchen when the front door opens and, as I am back there madly buffing glassware and silver to keep us afloat, it was going off to the beat of Funkytown.  Let me take you down, beep-buh-beep, to Funkytown, beep-buh-beep… as more and more piled in.

In the midst of all this fun and good times, my bartender decided now would be a grand time to cut his hand, taking me off the floor and him out of a very busy bar while I triaged his wound.  I found our sparsely stocked First Aid Kit, (and someone please tell me why it is that restaurant First Aid Kits are either stocked to the hilt with eye cups, defibrillators, and enough stuff to treat the victims of the Haiti earthquake, or they have just three band-aids and some dull scissors?) and got his hand wrapped; but the bleeding just wouldn’t stop and the kitchen had run out of latex gloves.  Perfect.  Now wouldn’t this be an excellent time for the Health Department to stop in?  I got on my cell, called in a “Stunt Bartender” who, thankfully, was both nearby and willing to come in: go figure.  She arrived about 20 minutes later and jumped into the fray.

I had just barely hung up the phone when my hostess, who was still doing restroom checks despite being drafted into service running food and bussing tables, informed me that the toilet in the Men’s Room had backed up.  Dealing with the shitty situation in the bathroom brought new meaning to the term “Manager’s Log”.

As I was pushing the mop bucket from the restroom back into the scullery, I noticed that there was no one on the Sautee Station in the kitchen.  The sous-chef informed me that he’d had to send one of the cooks home because he had been caught drinking the cooking wine in the back, and was drunk.  Perfect.  He told me this as I was helping one of my weeded servers process the nine separate checks from a party of really snotty Nelly Queens who had decided they needed to leave, now.  All I needed was a good, old-fashioned computer crash to really make my night complete.

So then, another server comes up to tell me that the four-top on 72 wants to “speak to The Manager.”  All restaurant mangers know that these are words that are generally never followed by anything good; and a big Shit Sandwich is most likely coming your way.  As a manager, I like to remain in the background, offering support to the staff.  I am like an Offensive Lineman in the NFL.  The only time my number is called out over the PA system is when something bad has happened; but instead of “Holding, number 72, offense…” and the touchdown is called back, it’s “Overcooked Veal Chop, table 72…”

The tidal wave of business is beginning to withdraw from the beach, and the crew is starting to pick through the rubble, straightening out the beach chairs and umbrellas; so I cinch up my tie, shoot my cuffs, and head on over to 72.  The gent at Position 3 who, as I was seating them, had made an off-color joke about the “diverse” crew and the “war zone” of the neighborhood surrounding the restaurant, had appointed himself spokesperson. They are four very old, very Jewish people.  Oy.

“Lizzen, I just vant to tell you some-zing, here…”

Okay, here we go.  Open wide for the Shitburger, and make it a double.

“Our soiver, fen-tehs-tic!  And the Duck, to die for.  We loved it all.  Job vell done…”

I was speechless, as an ear-to-ear, decidedly non-shit eating grin had commandeered my face.  A perfectly mashugana end to Sunday, Bloody Sunday…


"More Thanksgiving Stuff of Legends…"

November 25, 2010

Back in The Day, when I was a fledgling line cook on his way up the culinary food chain of Napa Valley, Thanksgiving had sort of become a Holiday of Accommodation for me.  With a new-found disdain born of my recent experiences working with “the real thing”, my thinking went that if it wasn’t straight out of Ecoffier, my wanna-be French nose was in the air immediately.  How could I possibly sit by and subject myself to overcooked green beans and dry Turkey after I had spent all week making Sauce Écrivisse, trimming bones for Carré D’Agneau En Croûte, and slicing beautiful loins of milk-fed Veal?  Would I, yet again, have to suffer through another meal of those “time-tested recipes” used by my Mom and Aunts for years?  I had become such an ass, as Thanksgiving up to then had been a perfectly fine dinner we all enjoyed together, over-cooked turkey notwithstanding.

One year, I decided to take the reins, and took the pompous ass thing to new levels.  I called my Mom to inform her that I would be preparing the most vital portion of the Thanksgiving meal: the bird, the stuffing and sauce.

“This year, we are having Red Wine and Cognac Marinated Turkey with Wild Rice, Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing, and Wild Mushroom Sauce, and I’m doing the cooking.”

“No, Mom, not gravy.  Sauce.”

“No, really I want to.  Mom, it’ll be great.  I can do it.  Mom…”

Mom grudgingly agreed; the grudging part came mostly from her being forced to relinquish the all-important control factor of the dinner.   But also, if I pulled off the coup I was attempting, she would finally have to admit my career choice was actually valid.  For years now, she had been patiently waiting for the day when I would put down the knives and pans, go back to school, and get “a real job”.

The recipe called for a 48-hour marinade of the massive 21-pound bird I had purchased.  At the time I was a true bachelor who worked in a restaurant kitchen, which meant that at home I had one or two old frying pans, a motley assortment of  utensils, and nothing in the fridge except Dijon mustard, beer, and a bottle of Old Crow in the freezer.  I ate at work.  So preparing the meal I was attempting, and doing so at home, meant borrowing pans of suitable sizes and a vessel to marinate a bird the size of a Dodo, from the Chef.  We were closed at the restaurant for Thanksgiving, and I assured him all equipment would be returned unscathed on Friday. 

Home, at the time, was up in Angwin, a sleepy little conclave of hippies and Seventh Day Adventist college students in the hills, nine miles up from the restaurant in St. Helena.  My parents’ house, where the clan would gather, was in Napa, twenty miles or so down-valley.  Without realizing it, I had become what every self-respecting Chef Di Partie dreads:  I was a Caterer.  Restaurant cooks have a saying, paraphrasing Nancy Reagan:  “Just say No To Catering”.  Catering is always fraught with the potential for disaster and the need to be constantly “stomping out fires” when the main course for the event goes sliding across the floor of a van en route to the site; or some essential ingredient is left back at the prep kitchen, thirty minutes away.  My Thanksgiving adventure would prove no different. I loaded the groceries, my frozen Pterodactyl, and all the equipment into the back seat my 1971 Chevy Vega (one of a series of $250 cars I had back then) and headed for home around 10:30pm in a driving rainstorm.

The Chevy Vega, even in showroom condition, was a poor excuse for a vehicle; and mine could never be confused with anything remotely resembling dependable.  It had transmission issues, bad suspension, and a passenger-side window that was stuck either halfway up or halfway down, depending on your philosophy and that day’s weather.  Of course I had no insurance, no valid driver’s license, and about three cups of gas in the tank.  I told you I was a true bachelor restaurant cook, didn’t I?  But pride and reckless youth were powering this adventure and so A-Catering I will go…

About halfway up the hill to Angwin, the Vega decided to live up (or down) to its reputation.  The rear axle of this 70’s Detroit P.O.S. is held together by a small horseshoe-shaped pin, which secured the right rear wheel to the axle rod and left rear wheel.  As I rounded one of several hairpin turns on the road up the mountain, with my little car Loaded For Bear with pots and pans, the World’s Largest Turkey, as well as 5 or 6 bags of groceries, this pin decided that a rainy night in November on a dark mountain road would be an optimal time to let go. It disintegrated, detaching the right rear wheel from the axle assembly and turning my car into a three-legged Billy Goat. The Vega’s right rear side dropped with a sickening thud and some disconcerting grinding noises. It’s a particularly odd sensation, to be looking out the driver’s side window and see your right rear wheel passing you on the left, and disappear over the cliff on the other side of the road.  I managed to limp the Vega off onto the narrow shoulder, and began to assess.

I was at least two miles from home; and it was 10:30pm, and pouring rain.  Of course, this was back when Cell Phones were still the size of a shoe box, and pretty much a novelty item for people like Gordon Gecko, so I had no one to call and no way to call them anyway.  A triage of the situation called for leaving the Chef’s equipment locked in the dead car and hoping for the best.  I hoisted the bags of groceries onto my back, and started walking the last leg of the journey.  To add insult to injury, the last mile of the drive was up and over a 7% grade and down into town.

You never realize just how friggin’ heavy a 20-pound turkey is until it needs to be carried uphill, in the rain, in a plastic grocery bag while getting soaked to the bone.   Stumbling along a pitch-dark mountain road with six bags of groceries can cause one to ponder one’s career choices; and the drive and determination to not let Mom be right, yet again, and pull off my first Thanksgiving Dinner despite the obstacles, was fading fast. Just as I was seriously considering spinning the bag with the Turkey over my head and letting it fly for the first time in its life, headlights appeared behind me.  My next-door neighbor, a contractor, was on his way up the hill, returning home from tarping over an exposed construction site down in the Valley.  He zoomed up in his massive Ford F-250.  I loaded my stuff in the back and, after doubling back to the corpse of my Vega for the borrowed kitchen equipment, we arrived home and off-loaded.

The Thanksgiving meal was a roaring success, with the red-wine marinade turning out a bird that was juicy and magnificently bronzed.  The Wild Rice Stuffing and Mushroom Sauce were big hits too, even with my uncle, Big Mike, a staunch traditionalist when it comes to Holiday meals.  Friday was spent retrieving a used 1971 Vega rear end from the junk yard and I came away from that Thanksgiving with a new-found appreciation for the complexities of gray green beans, Durkee Fried Onions, and Sweet Potatoes topped with tiny marshmallows.

I suppose it could have been worse…

"Howard and Randy"

August 24, 2010

We were driving home from the Mall yesterday, listening to the local “Classic Rock” channel on the radio which, given my age, is a euphemism for the “Oldies” station. “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring, circa 1982, comes on; and I was reminded of Howard and Randy.

Randy was an old restaurant warhorse, like myself, with whom I worked at the now-defunct St. George Restaurant in St. Helena. He was a server. I was Sous-Chef. We were both dedicated to upholding the long-standing dynamic of Kitchen vs. Dining Room; and, as required by tradition, we hated each other’s guts. The St. George, I can now admit, was no one’s ideal of a fine-dining Mecca; but I was in my first role as an official, fairly competent if somewhat slightly insecure, Sous. And as such I felt I had to wage war daily with what Chef Masa at Auberge had referred to as “The Evil Spirits”: Waiters.

Randy was fearlessly gay; I was a somewhat fearful, small-town breeder. Randy was a very intelligent, very well-read and well-spoken guy who could gut you like a fish with his comments. He was, in the parlance, a bitch. He took serious delight in baiting me with stuff like coming into the kitchen and, as he was grabbing the bottles of A-1 and Heinz 57 at the service station, says something like “The guy on Table 32 REALLY likes his steak. Ha-ha-ha-ha….”

We were at each others throats constantly; at work, anyway. After service, the whole crew hung out together, laughed, drank, and did whatever chemical compounds came our way; and the next day, just like the Sheepdog and the Coyote in the old Warner Brother’s cartoons, Randy and I would punch the clock and be back at it.

Randy also worked part-time bartending at the local Industry Bar in St. Helena, Pancho y Panchita’s Mexican Restaurant. Pancho’s, as it was known, was an intolerably bad Mexican restaurant by day; by night it was an equally intolerable Dive Bar. But, as it had one of the precious few hard-liquor licenses in St. Helena, it was the place. And it had the bonus of an owner who could provide us with the aforementioned chemical compounds. These were generally purchased and ingested in the kitchen at Pancho’s, as the cooks had gone home hours earlier. If you’d ever eaten the food there you would readily agree this was the best possible use for the facility. The food was something to definitely avoid; the employees sent out for pizza rather than eat there for free.

But, it was the after-work hangout for the kitchen, dining room, and management staff of every UpValley restaurant. If the tourists we all waited on and cooked for nightly asked about where to go for a drink after dinner, it was a Cardinal Sin for us restaurant folk to tell them about Pancho’s (or The Corner Bar in Rutherford). Those places were ours alone, and were not to be shared with anyone who wasn’t one of us.

At Pancho’s, it was the bartender’s (Randy’s) prerogative as to the musical selections that were to be played on the World’s Most Powerful Stereo System; and Randy had a massive music collection he would bring in. And so it came to be that, in 1982 along with stuff from U-2, INXS, and Talking Heads, “Twilight Zone” was one of the most-played songs there. It was that song that was playing one night when a patron, a non-local, non-restaurant guy who had somehow managed to find his way to Pancho’s, told Randy to “Turn that shit down…”

Randy, of course, responded as only he could. “Sure,” he says and, laughing quietly to himself, sashays out from behind the bar, over to the closet where the sound system lived. Looking back over his shoulder directly at the interloper, cranks the grapefruit-sized volume knob on the amp a quarter turn to the right. The volume was debilitating, and we loved it. It was the best in late-night entertainment to watch Randy be Randy.   Whenever I hear that song, I will always think of Randy working the bar, wearing his perfectly ironed satin bowling shirt, and his chrome “Steel Schnapps” hardhat, flipping the tourists the musical bird.

Randy’s running partner for years, was Howard. Howard was the Maitre’D at the St. George in those days, and remains a local legend. A gravelly-voiced queen from Georgia, at the door he had no equal. He could charm the pants off even the touchiest and most demanding of guests. In the days before Open Table’s data-based “Cheat Sheet”, Howard could remember everyone even if he hadn’t seen them in years. With the volume of his daily weed regimen, he quite understandably might not remember everyone’s names every time; but he would remember something about them from the last time. Something like, “How’s that cute little dawg of yours…” or “Still drivin’ that big Jew Canoe, bay-buh?” Or he would simply drawl out a “Hi BUH-ddy!” or a “Hey BAY-beh!” and then fake it until the name came to him. Anyone who came through that door was made to feel like they had just found a long-lost friend’s party. The guy smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, and would do just about any drug put in front of him, and we all loved working with him.

Howard had such thick, sincere, grizzled Southern Charm, that he could say anything to anyone, and they would think it was a compliment. One night there was a party of four who had been waiting about a half-hour to be seated for their reservation. Howard approached them at the bar, told them their table would be ready in just a few more minutes. An indignant woman in the group said “Well, I should hope so. I can walk into any restaurant on Manhattan and get seated instantly…”

Howard responds with, “Well it must be because you’re such a bitch…” and bursts into an uproarious, gravelly laugh, and the rest of the group joined in. He was apparently on target with that one. The bitchy woman, looking slightly confused, chuckled nervously.

When they are finally seated at their table, Howard approaches with a bottle of a cheap Italian white to placate them. He presents it and says, more than a little sarcastically,

“We’d like you to have this for your extraordinary patience.”

The bitchy woman looks at Howard, then looks at the bottle, and replies, “What’s this? Is it any good?”

Howard tells her, “Bay-buh, it’s FREE!” and walks off. The Stuff of Legends.

Howard Lane: The Man, The Myth, The Legend...

Howard ate a New York steak every night he worked when I was at The St. George. One night, he’s cutting into his steak, standing as he always did at the service station in the kitchen, all the better to leer at the young boys on the crew. Randy is standing there with him, mooching some, and an innocent, young, male busser asks them,

“Can I have a bite of that?”

Howard’s checking the kid out from behind, looking him up and down; and Randy says,

“Play your cards right and you can have the whole thing…”

Or when the cocktail waitress that worked on Friday and Saturday nights would be standing in the kitchen waiting for appetizers, wearing whatever short, slutty dress she had selected for the evening, Randy reaches into the salad station, grabs an anchovy filét, and drops it between her feet; and Howard says, “Oh, bay-buh, look what just fell outta your poonie…”

The both of them are gone now, Howard passing away long after anyone who ever knew him thought he would, and Randy passing from a sudden illness a few years earlier. They’re in “The Twilight Zone” now, probably smoking doobs, drinking Coors, and cranking the tunes way too loud for the tourists. Fellas, this one’s for you…

"Playin' Catch-Up…"

June 23, 2010

Some random notes I couldn’t post last week due to the fact that I was wiped out, drawn, and quartered from moving/traveling.  Plus we have some connectivity issues such as we have no internet at out house yet; so we be Internet Connection Pirates, Mateys, plundering the unprotected networks from our neighbors…Arrrggghh.

During the last 24-hour period of our cross-country drive,

  • I had some great BBQ and some Sweet Potato Pie from a place that had a family living in the back room…
  • We drove through a thunder and lightning storm that was a nine on a ten scale…
  • I had Chicken biscuits for breakfast from Chick Fil-A…
  • I had a grocery clerk in Alabama tell me “Y’all come back…”
  • We crossed the Tallahatchee Bridge, although we saw nothing of a certain Billy Jo MacCallister, and whatever it was he was supposed to have tossed over the side.
  • We drove through Tupelo, Mississippi as we were listening to the soundtrack from “O Brother Where Art Thou.”  It just seemed to fit.

We are finally settling into our new home a bit.  The issues with the AC that I mentioned previously are resolved; our washer and dryer are installed; and cable/internet comes tomorrow.

Without the Boob Toob to distract us we have had some great family time and have enjoyed a couple of nights out.  Last night we went to Little Five Points, which is like Telegraph Avenue in Berkely in 1979, condensed into three blocks.  It really is a toilet, with cranksters, hipsters, yuppies, guppies and families all stepping over the same cigarette butts and sleeping homeless people; but it has some of the coolest shops, retro-clothing stores, and galleries around, as well as a bunch of restaurants.  We went to listen to a local band on the verge of making it, a group called The Constellations.  And even though I felt like the Den-Dad, standing with the hordes of hairy youngsters in the aisles of Criminal Records where they were performing, I did have a good time.  Even bought the CD.

Here are some observations from our first few days in town, in no particular order of relevance or importance:

In Atlanta you can:

  • Go to a package store and have the clerk tell you how he just helped pull a customer’s tooth, inside the store, that morning.   Now that’s what I call Customer Service…buy a bottle, get an extraction…
  • Run a yellow/red light at the last possible second, and think to yourself, “Oh My God, I just barely made that.”  You are feeling like you just risked certain death and are just getting over it, only to look in your rearview mirror and see three other cars behind you coming through the same light…
  • Depend on the fact that, at every restaurant, you will have to unroll your silverware from inside your napkin…
  • Get panhandled twice by the same guy (with two different sob stories) while you are filling your gas tank…
  • See trees covered with so much Kudzu they look like giant cartoon characters…
  • See up to three major local sports teams lose, all on the same night…
  • Have some of the best Fried Chicken of your life, from a Publix Supermarket Deli…
  • See people sitting outside at lunchtime in 90º heat, and 70% humidity, pretending like they’re enjoying it…
  • Eat ice cream from Morelli’s.  Salted Caramel is all I have to say about that…
  • Have a guy named Gargoyle come over and install the electrical for your new washer which you thought was a 110 volt, but is really 240…
  • Have a girl named Quanticia check your groceries at the Krogers…

It is really great to be back in an urban environment again; and I am willing to put up with a little funkiness, in favor of variety.  Local color abounds.

"In The Heat Of The Night…"

June 19, 2010

I am more hot, tired, and sore than I think I have ever been in my life.  One thing I would like to note right off the bat:  whomever it was that coined the phrase “A good kind of tired” was an asshole.  There is no such thing, and if there was, we shot right past it on the Tired Scale so quickly we completely missed the exhilaration part, and proceeded directly to the utter and complete exhaustion part.

Day 2 of the Moving Truck Unload starts soon, and I am just a couple of Advil away from total paralysis.  After so many years in the restaurant business, clutching knives, pans, trays, and carrying plates and such, I have more than a mild case of Carpal Tunnel in my wrists; and after yesterday, my hands are swollen like a couple of Catcher’s Mitts.  The last time I was this exhausted, both physically and mentally was five years ago when we drove a rental truck to New Orleans, packed up our house one day, drove back to Atlanta the next, and immediately jumped into several months of a 16-hour-a-day work schedule, as we took over operations of a restaurant we were thinking of buying.  Then, like now, if someone were to have uttered the phrase,  “but, it’s a good kind of tired”, I would probably have punched them in the nose, real hard.

We have had seven days of cross country car travel with a dog, a cat, and our daughter, along with all the obligatory equipment, suitcases, litter boxes, etc, that needed to be unloaded and reloaded every damn day.  This was book-ended by three long days of loading a moving truck and cleaning a three bedroom house on one end, and now the unloading and unpacking over the next few days on this end.

The moving truck arrived on our tiny little street yesterday morning.  After doing a nice job of tree trimming on its way down our block, the driver managed to dock it right in front of the house, and we were able to begin our excavation and damage assessments.  Much like the overhead bins on the airlines, some shifting of contents had occurred, requiring us to remove items layer by layer, box by box, sometimes using the ladder which we had serendipitously packed onto the truck last, to climb up and over larger items, so we could gain access to the toppled mass of boxes and bins behind them.  Despite years of seeing (and largely ignoring) all those safety videos at work, “Back straight, and use your legs” was just not a viable option.

And the cherry on top of all this back and forth carrying, twisting, reaching, clutching, lifting, unpacking and hand-trucking (the word for “hand truck” in Spanish is “Diablo” and now I know why) is not the 90° heat and 70% humidity.  No, that much was expected.  The real topper is that the air conditioning in our newly gutted and remodeled house is non-functional.  Somehow our Home Inspection Guy missed the fact that our brand new heat pump was not hooked up to any viable source of electricity; so our house, which has been locked up tight for about 3 months, is roughly the same temperature as those little iron boxes they used to put POW’s in during the Civil War.  And just for added fun, all the screens for our freshly painted windows are in a little storage room off the carport, not on the windows.  So, unless we want to be the Noah’s Arc of flying insects, and have at least two of every one of the dozens of species that live here in the South, buzzing around every light in our house, the windows and doors have to stay closed.  Plus we have a cat that needs to stay inside, lest he freak out even more than he did riding in a car and prowling strange hotel rooms every night over the last week.  So, after a quick trip to Lowe’s for some screen installation materials, we managed to get a little airflow happening, albeit some very hot and humid airflow.

Being a huge believer in Extended Service Contracts, I do have a Home Warranty that, unbelievably, includes the air conditioning system.   So the Air Conditioning Dude was called but, of course,  cannot come out until the next day within the standard “One PM to Five PM” window.  We gratefully accept our friends offer to sleep in the air-conditioned bliss of their house, so our first night in our new home is postponed.

The next day we begin the slow trudge of unpacking several dozen more boxes of crap than we actually have space for, get the beds set up, rugs unrolled, etc.  The Air Conditioning Dude arrives to much fanfare and celebration, and proceeds to crawl around under the house connecting the connections and makes the pronouncement the AC  is now live.  He is thanked as the conquering hero, showered with rose petals, tipped accordingly, and then leaves.  A couple of sweaty hours of box and furniture moving later, the system is not exactly roaring to life. If you put your hand directly in front of one of the vents, a mild, cool breeze is evident; move it 10 inches away, bupkus.  The thermostat says it’s still 82 in the house and my body temp is about 102.  So another call is made, another four-hour window is established, and we attempt to get some sleep in our steamy, new casa.

So, last night, as I was lying in bed wearing only my shorts and wife-beater and sweating bullets, I am listening to an approaching thunderstorm, anticipating its clearing of the air and the much-needed drop in temperature it will bring.  I am gazing through our open bedroom window into the darkness, listening to owls and Cicadas, and watching the Lightning Bugs flit around in our back yard, flashing like Christmas Tree lights up in the oaks.  I am feeling very much like Paul Newman in “The Long, Hot Summer”, remembering my love-hate relationship with this environment, and silently vowing to never, ever move anywhere again.

Yes, I've sweated so much this is what I look like now...

"Gotta Get a T.O., Baby…"

April 8, 2010

Way too much going on mentally, personally, and work-ally (word…) to allow my limited amount of full functioning brain cells to conceive of a full-on post this week.  But stand by, it’s just a “20”, not a full Time Out.  SNMT will be back real soon with posts about vacation, dining, and the stupid-fun, hectic world of restaurants, food, and wine…plus some Big News!  Stay tuned, Sportsfans!!

"Turning Japanese, I really think so…"

March 4, 2010

In our last episode, it was 1981, and nativenapkin (me) had just made his move, at the behest of my buddy and restaurant guru, Crazy Brian, from traveling line-cook/broiler cook at the local Mom and Pop Steak and Potato joints, to an apprentice under one of the first Master Chefs to arrive upon the Bay Area/Napa Valley restaurant scene, Masataka Kobayashi.

I started two weeks before the Grand Opening on September 18, which would be a gala “Coming Out” affair with a sit-down, four course dinner for 200, tons of celebrity guests, and a Wilkes-Bashford Fashion Show.  More on that a bit later, but right now…

Masa was born in Japan.  He went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Kobe, and had apprenticed in his youth, under the Troisgros Brothers at their restaurant in France; he had gone on to much acclaim as Executive Chef of Le Plasir in New York, before he was lured to Napa by Claude Rouas to open Auberge du Soleil.  He spoke Japanese, of course; but also French, some Spanish he learned when he met his wife, who was from the Dominican Republic, and English, although not a whole lot of any of them besides the Japanese.   We communicated more with gestures, demonstrations, and the use of a few key “Masa-isms”:  “Be careful…” “Saute quick”, “nice salt pepper”, “sauce around…”, “Dats right!” and a few others.  As long as we both knew the context of the conversation, we were okay.  Anything to do with the food and cooking, which was about 90% of our conversations, was understood.  If the topic veered off to the personal, we had a little more of a struggle.

My initiation into my first real kitchen, where there were sights, sounds, smells, tastes and aromas that were completely new, was like a novice skier being snatched from the Bunny Hill, put on the chair lift to the top of the mountain and dropped off.  I had the basic skills I would need, but no idea of how to get down this mountain other than point downhill and go.   I was definitely going to end up with snow in my underwear.

Masa employed the “See One, Do One, Teach One” system:  first time, I show you; second time, we do it together; third time, you show me.  Although, in his halting Japanenglish it came out, “Fuss time, eye show, say-go time both do (pointing back and forth between his chest and my chest), lass time, you do…”  It is a philosophy I still embrace.  It can really help separate the sheep from the goats in a big hurry: if you take more than three times to learn anything, you are probably a “waste-o-flesh,” as Brian used to say, and not worth investing any more time or effort to train.  Buh-bye.  Their “immersion” teaching cemented these lessons so well that today, over 30 years later, I can still remember ingredients and techniques I learned then.

My first two weeks in Masa’s kitchen were also my last weeks at my previous job.  Even in my irresponsible youth I felt it necessary to give two weeks notice.  I had learned my lesson: that doing the “Fuck-you-I-quit” really did nothing much for my ego beyond the adrenaline buzz of the moment.  And it wasn’t that I had learned what it meant to be “professional”; or that I didn’t want to burn any bridges (I had torched quite a few up to that point, both personal and career).  I had just discovered the joy and power that comes after you have given your notice to a boss that has been a total dickhead for the last 6 months.  So, for two weeks I worked my day-shifts for the crazy Italians, plating pasta and sauteing zucchini, and then drove the 20 minutes up The Trail to Auberge for “schooling”.  By the end of an 18-hour day, the last 1o of which was this intensified, concentrated, hurry-up daily culinary academy, you’d think I would be mentally and physically spent.  Quite the contrary:  the mental aspect was so stimulating I often spent a couple of hours with Chef in his office after work, listening to him talk as we read through the Escoffier book, soaking up every tidbit of knowledge I could. My physical endurance came from adrenaline and the fact that I had the “retard strength” of a 21-year-old.

I had to learn my lessons quickly and well in those first few weeks, as the hype around the opening had generated a huge buzz and business volume that did not permit fucking up, ever.  And there would be no ” Grace Period” from The Press:  Patricia Unterman, then the main restaurant critic for the SF Chronicle,  reviewed us in our first month.  Herb Caen, the iconic gossip columnist, visited and wrote about us several times in those first weeks as well.   Masa’s and Brian’s instructions didn’t so much sink in as they were hammered home.

I started out on the Garde Manger station, doing two or three cold First Courses, the palate-cleanser salad that every diner got after their Main Course, and the four desserts.  The Chocolate Mousse we served on the opening menu was about a 10-step affair that involved making a Zabbione in a 20-quart Hobart, with three lit Sternos underneath it to slowly thicken the two dozen or so egg yolks while I progressively added sugar, Grand Marnier, and melted chocolate;  then, an Italian Meringue had to be gently folded in so as not to decrease volume and lose the airy quality we were looking for; then sweetened cream, whipped to soft peaks, was added to finish it.  There was only one mixing bowl for the Hobart, and the delicate nature of the three main components dictated that they be made and combined quickly; so once started the process had to be completed without interruption.  It was an abject lesson in timing and logistics.  Brian “helped” me learn by occasionally coming through and moving a vital tool, like a whisk or a spatula, to a table 20 feet away to teach me the importance of Mis En Place:  everything ready and in its place.  Got it.  After that, I kept a pastry spat in my back pocket at all times!  Shit like that…

We worked 6 days a week, with Tuesdays off.  Every Monday was payday.  So, after trying to cram two days of partying and such into a 36 hour period, yeah, I was broke by Wednesday.  The Grand Opening Party was looming, so the week before we worked straight through to prep for it.

The Wilkes-Bashford people came up the day before to set up for the fashion show that would entertain a guest list that included the likes of newly-elected Governor Jerry Brown and his consort, Linda Ronstadt.  The runway for the show was constructed on the bottom floor of the Auberge, with the idea being the guests would gather along the railing on the upper terrace to watch.  Scaffolding was anchored into the steeply sloping hillside below, putting the end of the platform a full 30 feet off the ground, with no railings .  The runway had a black covering, and the only lights used were spots directed onto the models;  to the guests viewing the show from the balcony, they had the appearance of walking on air, out onto an invisible stage suspended in the blackness below.  It was a spectacular effect.

We saw little of the show, as the six of us (the entire kitchen crew at the time of opening) were huddled into the downstairs “Banquet Kitchen” which was comprised of a couple of stainless steele tables and a plate warmer.  We were in there plating 200 First Courses of Chilled, Poached Maine Lobster with Beluga Caviar, Fresh Black Truffles, and Sauce Ècrevisse.  The lobster was poached, shelled, then “re-assembled” on the plate:  perfect claws pointing outward, below which were slices of tail meat alternated with the truffle slices.  Eight tiny green asparagus were the “legs” on each side, and three cucumber tournè formed the fan of the tail at the bottom.  The tail slices were topped with the caviar, at a cost of God-knows-how-much per ounce.

One of the several very gay male models from the show peered through the tiny window of the prep kitchen, knocking feverishly on the door as he saw us applying the fish roe.  I opened the door, and he asked “Is that Beluga caviar?”  Yup.  He held up a vial that had probably a quarter-ounce of coke in it and said, “I’ll trade you a spoon of this for a spoon of that…”

Yeah, like Little Orphan Annie, I think I’m gonna like it here.